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Teaching Kids About ‘Tough Topics’ in Turbulent Times

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Christine Sampson

Students at Pierson Middle School recently donned white masks to converse face-to-face in an activity led by Organizacion Latino-Americana that was meant to break down cultural and racial biases and barriers.

Within the last three weeks, the Holocaust Center of Long Island in Glen Cove was vandalized twice, including one incident in which swastikas were spray-painted on a tree and a rock. Also twice in recent weeks, swastikas have turned up as graffiti in Springs and Amagansett, though police are not investigating the second one as a hate crime. And in Freeport, the recent arrest and alleged beating of a 44-year-old black man by several white police officers has spurred an investigation by the Nassau County District Attorney.

Given all that, efforts that are underway to teach kids here about diversity and inclusion could be considered particularly timely.

On Sunday at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor, the award-winning film “Green Book” will be screened for teens and adults as part of the “Tough Topics” film series. The screening is from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and includes a panel discussion afterward, at which Lora Rene Tucker, a social worker who is involved with the Eastville Community Historical Society, and Harriet Simon, who grew up in South Carolina and now lives here, will offer remarks and answer questions.

“Green Book” is based on the true story of an African-American pianist who employs a white driver and bodyguard as he tours the Deep South in the 1960s. The name of the film references “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a real-life guidebook written for African-American travelers in the mid-20th century.

“ ‘The Green Book’ presents someone in a position of a little more privilege, but even with that privilege it shows how he was still treated,” Ms. Tucker said. “I don’t speak for a whole generation or for a whole culture of people — everyone’s had a different experience — but at least we can open the door to a dialogue about understanding someone else’s journey.”

The film series is a collaboration between the library and the Sag Harbor School District’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

These issues are “right up there with climate change,” said Bobbie Cohen, a committee member who had the idea to start the film series. “Because our society needs to become more cohesive and unified, especially in this political climate, we need to do everything we can to help groups of people, especially kids during their formative years, to be included and empowered. It’s not going to happen just because we want it to happen.”

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee is also helping teachers at Sag Harbor Elementary School develop classroom libraries that represent many cultures and communities, and has urged the administration and school board to think about diversity when hiring new teachers and other faculty and staff members. The committee’s latest effort is to create a teen advisory group at Pierson Middle and High School to get the students more involved.

Through March 20 the East Hampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force is hosting a bumper sticker design contest for local children ages 6 to 18. The task force is seeking entries that promote fairness, respect, caring, self-awareness, empowerment, and other themes.

“The competition is an opportunity for participants to reflect on diversity and increase their understanding of the value that differences have in a respectful and civil society,” the task force said in its announcement.

Participants can send their entries to the East Hampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force, care of the town board office, East Hampton Town Hall, 159 Pantigo Road, East Hampton 11937. Materials can also be emailed to The entries should be 3 inches by 11 inches in size, should include no more than two lines of text (“shorter may be better,” the task force advises), and should be original. Submissions should include a student’s name, home address and mailing address, and an email address (school addresses and email addresses may be used if an entrant wishes). Prizes will be awarded in three age groups: 6 to 9, 10 to 13, and 14 to 18.

Larry Smith of Springs, who has been a member of the anti-bias task force for about 30 years, said the goal is to “highlight the need to welcome all people into the community.”

“There is a lot going on,” Mr. Smith said. “We thought we’d reach out to not only accomplish what we want, which is getting artwork done for the message, but to get the kids in the schools involved as a learning experience, and hopefully they’ll bring it into their homes. It’s important to get the message out that the town will not tolerate bias of any kind.”

The task force has a broad educational mission, and sends speakers into schools and community groups such as citizens advisory committees.

“We stay on top of it behind the scenes,” Mr. Smith said. “Where there are incidents from time to time, we take an active position and are more visible. We give support where we feel support is needed among community groups.”

The task force has a hotline, 631-998-1010, extension 2133, for people to report incidents of bias or discrimination in East Hampton. “It doesn’t get used much,” Mr. Smith said.

Local school districts have increasingly been including lessons about diversity and acceptance in their curriculums, particularly at East Hampton Middle School and the Springs School.

“Fully half of middle school is social-emotional learning; the other half is academics,” said Charles Soriano, the East Hampton Middle School principal.

The Springs School has been teaching kids about these issues for the last two years with its Diversity Ambassador program, which is “a grassroots, student-driven task force that promotes cultural tolerance and peace by raising awareness of the devastating effects of bias and hate in our world.”

The Diversity Ambassadors have established a Gay Straight Alliance club at the school, visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center in New York City, and received recognition from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Interfaith Anti-Bias Task Force, the New York State Assembly, and the East Hampton Town Board.

The Springs School’s Diversity Ambassadors program is seeking donations to support its activities and outreach. Donations can be made by check, written out to Springs School with “Diversity Ambassadors” on the memo line. They can be sent to the attention of Christine Cleary, the assistant principal, at 48 School Street in East Hampton 11937.

Organizacion Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, commonly known as OLA, has announced that two anonymous donors have come forward with a “dream challenge” fund-raising campaign. They will match donations from others, up to $100,000. Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA, said contributions will support programs including the OLA Media Lab, Latino Teen Empowerment workshops, college scholarships, and the Southampton Town Language Cafe. Donations must be received no later than Dec. 31 in to help OLA meet the challenge. Information on how to make a donation can be had by calling 631-899-3441 or by visiting the OLA website,

Ms. Perez, who recently conducted a diversity workshop for seventh and eighth graders at Pierson Middle and High School, said “one of the hardest questions of all” is how to teach kids about diversity.

“We have an amazing community and the fact that these sort of artificial dividing lines have been created by other people or by people who are afraid is negative and could possibly crumble our community,” Ms. Perez said. “We have such diversity here, and I don’t just mean Latino and non-Latino. The more we speak to the benefits of that diversity, learn about each other, and speak to each other’s strengths and what we have to offer to each other, it’s only going to get better.”

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